Saturday, October 31, 2015

Atrocity Tourism, Part 3: The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas NV

In 2014, when I left my last job in Saudi, I flew into Vietnam to have a couple of weeks of holiday and see some friends there. Trying to find a cheap-ish one way ticket home, the best I could manage was a one-way flight into Las Vegas, Nevada.

I decided to stay a couple days, and when Expedia offered me a 2 day stay at the Hard Rock Hotel for $100, I jumped at it. What fun!

Of course, I had just turned 45 then. Old enough, right? But I thought it would be fun to check it out, especially at "Pool Party!" season was just ending.

Well, I was wrong.

It wasn't fun at all, and I wasn't even CLOSE to being the oldest, or the oldest-looking person there.

I arrived in the morning at about 10:00am, so I took a nap to ease my jet lag and then had lunch. It turned out I had to pay extra to use the pool and sports club, based on the $50 a night I was paying, but that's pretty typical, I guess. 

I went to the pool, where the pool party was just getting started at 3 or 4 pm. I'd been away from America for a while, but the first thing that always strikes me is how heterogeneous our society is; people are every shade of the rainbow.

 But then the other thing strikes me: my god, why does everybody look so weird? 

I mean, of course, in small town America, one is struck by the fatness. And it's not just fatness, bodies are actually changing into distinctly not-typically-human-looking shapes from the metabolic syndrome caused by all the soda people consume. 

But the other side of that coin is America's cult of health, fitness and plastic surgery, and in Vegas at the Hard Rock, I saw plenty of that. And they are ALSO starting to look not-typically-human. 

Most of the dudes were enormous, clearly jacked up on roids, covered with dopey tattos, wearing all that MMA / Tapout / Affliction crap smeared with logos, just in case you didn't notice how tough they were. And most of these guys were not in their 20s. A LARGE number of them appeared to be in their 40s. Or maybe they just appeared older from their sunlamp-damaged skin. 

Half the women had duck lips and fake tits, which didn't do much to distract one from their advancing years, gunts, brittle dyed hair, and tiny little eyes. The other half were girls you might have though were decent looking enough if you saw them dressed, but in bikinis and bright light, their huge cellulite-covered asses, cheap hair exensions, and awful tattoos could not be covered. 

(Although I'm aware big asses are a thing now, cellulite is never in style. Is it?)

I always notice how tiny white American women's faces are. Little face squished onto big heads, in most cases. 

Still, the room itself was pretty nice, with a great view: 

Attempts to go onto the Las Vegas strip itself revealed to me that the casinos are now mainly glitzy malls with a small area for gambling in the back. I was neon-light-flashed into a near epileptic seizure and the crowds were tremendous, all crowded into narrow walkways twisting around and above the street. 

I went back to the Hard Rock and lost $100 at the casino. Andrew Dice Clay was playing a show in the bar there, which I might have enjoyed, but I figured I could watch him just as well on YouTube for free.

So I did that.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Atrocity Tourism, Part 2: The Vietnam War Remnants Museum

So, you'd like to see a good museum about the war in Vietnam, but you're afraid it might skimp on describing tortures and atrocities, and might not have enough cool military equipment and pictures of children with the most horrific birth defects imaginable? 

Well, have I got a museum for you!  

I visited the Vietnam War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh (a.k.a Saigon) in July of 2014, with my erstwhile sidekick Crazy Bob. It was formerly known as "Exhibition House for US and Puppet Crimes" and the "Exhibition House for Crimes of War and Aggression." 

Outside the museum you get to see some military stuff that got left behind after Saigon fell: Tanks, planes, bombs, artillery guns: 

Me outside a Huey gunship. If I was 15 years older, I might well have firing that gun out the window at fleeing civilians in Vietnam.

There are also some dioramas that describe various tortures and atrocities, including this statue of a guy in a tiger cage, which is so realistic-looking I saw some young girls scream when they looked in and saw it:

There's also a French guillotine there, that most stylish and elegant of mass execution methods. Leave it to those French, eh? (It's not just the Americans who come in for a drubbing at this museum; the French atrocities in Indochina are well-considered.)

But it's inside the museum that you see the really mind-numbing horrors, if only in photos: the massacre at MyLai, the legacy of birth defects caused by Agent Orange, and the famous pictures of children burned by napalm running down the beach. 

But then, of course, what are you going to do afterwards? Enjoy some delicious Vietnamese food, get drunk on 50 cent beer, chase some Russian package tourists, or maybe get a $50 hooker. For all its horror, alas, the museum seems like nothing more than a trip to a Haunted House, or maybe at the best, something we can do to assuage our consciences and sense of history before we get back to our backpacking and sex tourism. 

The war in Afghanistan recently beat Vietnam's record -- it's now America's longest war. (Still, the death toll of American troops in Vietnam was 20 times higher.) Will Afghanistan someday be a popular tourist destination (again,*)  the years of atrocity compressed into a handy museum?

Well I guess that's better than the alternative. 

*Afghanistan was once an important stop on the overland Hippie Backpacker trail in the 60s; Kabul was considered the "Paris of Central Asia." 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Atrocity Tourism, Part 1: Chernobyl and Pripyat Nuclear Exclusion Zone

Most people think of Ukraine and slaver at the thought of juicy big-butted, thick-lipped white women who will sleep with foreigners for bargain-basement prices. Crazy Bob certainly was.


I wanted to go see Chernobyl.

Like a lot of Generation X kids, I was terrified by the prospects of nuclear war and nuclear disaster.

So how could I not want to go see the sight of the largest nuclear disaster in history?

You can buy a tour to Chernobyl -- I took the one-day variety, which ends up being about 10 hours. This will set you back a hundred bucks or so, and includes lunch. (There are 2-day options, but 1 day is plenty, in my opinion, unless you happen to have very specialized interests in radiation damage.)

I had visited the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev the day before, and had listened to the whole history of the affair on the headset; also highly recommended, if only to put your sex tourism in perspective to the country's relentlessly tragic history.

Bang Ukraine!

The drive to the Nuclear Exclusion Zone takes maybe an hour and a half. I went with about a half-dozen other people, all guys, all individual travelers.

Our guide was a guy in his early 30s, and he had been living in Pripyat when the city was evacuated in 1986. Soviet bureaucracy, foot-dragging, and the Cold War culture of secrecy and deniability led to the surrounding areas being warned much later than they should have been; even staying indoors for a few days would have saved a lot of lives. He approached the amount of radiation he'd been exposed to with typical Slavic aplomb, and he smoked cigarettes with gusto every time the car stopped.

About ten times normal background radiation levels

The amount of radiation you would be exposed to during a one-day trip is considerably less than an x-ray; nonetheless, of course, the guide loves to see the tourists jump when he puts the radiation detector near a "hot spot" and it starts dinging. (You have to go through several radiation detectors on the way in and out to make sure you're not bringing out any badass particles on your shoes or hands, of course.)

The tour will likely take you to a couple of scary abandoned places: a couple of schools, a youth center, and this abandoned radar facility. These are all brick buildings so they provided some shielding from the radiation and have low levels inside; all the wooden structures, which absorbed radiation, have been demolished.

Pool in abandoned Soviet youth center

Abandoned school Pripyat

I'm sure the mold, asbestos, and lead paint in these places were far more dangerous than any residual radiation. 

There's also a walk through the town square in Pripyat; this Ferris Wheel was set to open on May 1, 1986, and it never got the chance. 

Then of course you can see the reactor itself, but the radiation levels are highest here, so you don't get much chance to linger. I was surprised to learn that thousands of people still work in the zone and at the containment unit, and that the other reactors -- there were four, total -- continued to produce power up to the year 2000. They dragged away the contaminated topsoil and debris and resurfaced that lot, so the power plant itself and the sarcophagus surrounding it are surprisingly non-scary-looking -- at least, until your radiation detector starts clicking in overtime and beeping its warnings.

Highly contaminated cooling ponds, you can see the power plant behind it
The monument to the disaster outside Reactor 4, containment unit in the background

Then you can cap things off with various monuments to the dead and a stop at the small produkti that serves as the Chernyobl Nuclear Exclusion Zone's only restaurant, guest house, and souvenir shop.


Monument to the firefighters. Supposedly drinking vodka helped protect some of them from radioactive iodine.

"Granma went to Chernobyl and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!"

And how many people actually died directly because of the disaster? Well, it's difficult to say. 32 died in the actual accident itself. But indirectly? Somewhere between 5000 and 500,000, depending how you try to figure the numbers. Because when you start trying to count up all the birth defects, non-fatal cancers, and people who just plain drank themselves to death rather than die slowly of cancer, the issue gets pretty confused. 

Suffice to say it was "a fucking lot." 

But interestingly the wildlife and fauna in the area is really thriving, just because there aren't many people around to trouble them. And hey, what's a cheeky 500,000 people compared to the millions who died in the Soviet Era Famine? 

Next week on Atrocity Tourism: The Vietnam War Museum, Saigon

Friday, October 09, 2015

American Update: Panic at the Dollar Store

I had a bit of a panic attack at the dollar store a few days ago.

I've been keeping myself busy in America, if not particularly thriving.

My dad moved into an assisted living place, which he likes very much, and his condition seems better. (It's more like an all-inclusive hotel for old people than a hospital.)  I'm going to see him this weekend, and I also spent Labor Day there.

(It's a not-particularly-convenient eight hour drive.)

My apartment here in Bumfuck, Southwestern United States, is nice enough, and my job is bearable, if not great, and the salary flows in smoothly every two weeks -- although at the moment it also flows out smoothly to pay for my dad's assisted living place while they try to sell their condo. I'm doing well in my one class towards a master's degree -- currently have a 93 average.

But then I was in the dollar store buying a basket for my silverware.

And I suddenly thought to myself, OH MY GOD I'M IN THE DOLLAR STORE BUYING A BASKET FOR MY SILVERWARE! I don't belong here! I should be in like Rio or Belarus or Vientiene or somewhere! 

I began to sweat. To panic. I suddenly put my basket back and started to leave the store.

Then I thought to myself, well, that thing will cost twice as much at Wal-Mart. I came all this way, I better buy it, or that means I'll have to come BACK to the dollar store.

I walked in confused circles for a while. Then I looked around at the people in the dollar store. Lots of old people. A few visible poor people. A few hipsters student types.

Then the following song came on:

Numerous people in the store were like, "That's my jam right there!" and a couple of little girls started singing and dancing.

That cheered me up a bit. Everybody in the store had walked many roads and done many things, and well, sometimes life just takes you to the dollar store.

I got my basket. And a couple of other household items. And a book.

Then this song came on:

And I'm like, damn straight, man. Damn straight.

I walked out of the dollar store, head held high, facing the future confidently.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Assassination Tourism, Part 2: The Civil Rights Museum, Memphis TN

A woman named Jacqueline Smith has been sitting outside the Civil Right Museum in Memphis TN for nearly 30 years.

She was the last tenant at the Lorraine Motel, in downtown Memphis, and her protest seemed mainly to be against the removal of affordable housing from the downtown area to build the museum in the motel.

I have friends I regularly visit in Memphis; it's a couple-three hours from where I grew up.

I remember walking by and speaking to her when the museum was under construction, when I was about 18 or 19,  25 or 26 years ago. I gave her $2.

She's still sitting there.

She now encourages people to boycott the museum, and she  has a sign reading, "WELCOME TO THE $27 MILLION DOLLAR JAMES EARL RAY MEMORIAL!"

And, well, she has a point.

The parts about James Earl Ray, the guy convicted for assassinating Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis at the Lorraine Hotel in 1968, are unduly extensive and interesting.

This guy was not your typical boring lone wolf nutball; this was something of a dashing career criminal hustler from a family of them. Jailed for a series of burglaries and frauds, he seemed to really get into the lifestyle after he escaped prison, jaunting around the US in a new Mustang, supporting himself (probably) with money from bank robberies, getting plastic surgery, living under assumed identities and attempting to make pornographic films in Mexico. He even took dancing lessons in LA, apparently dreaming of "doing the rhumba in some South American country" with no extradition. Ah, don't we all?

Hard to argue with the evidence: a rifle and binoculars with his fingerprints on them were found in a garbage can near a room he was renting at a dumpy rooming house nearby. His motivations and the possible involvement of others, especially his brothers, however, remain unclear.

He was arrested at Heathrow, travelling on a false Canadian passport, apparently on his way to live in newly-independent Rhodesia. Purportedly, he hoped to work as a mercenary soldier there. (There is no indication he ever considered teaching English.)

The museum does address various conspiracy theories, which James Earl Ray himself did plenty to fuel with cryptic shit-stirring comments throughout his imprisonment, referring to a mysterious smuggler named Raoul. The one that intrigued me is that he may have been seeking a sort of "bounty" on the head of MLK, that he thought various racist business owners were offering.

The Lorraine Motel is pretty dumpy also -- the room where Martin Luther King was shot was preserved just as it was at the time. I'm not sure why I thought it would be nicer -- it was the 60s and everything was just dumpier in general, particularly in a city like Memphis, which is still plenty dumpy. 

The actual Civil Rights museum part is certainly not uninteresting, also, and I was unaware that MLK was visiting regarding the Sanitation Strike of the time. Black sanitation workers walked off the job to protest the death of two guys who were accidentally crushed to death in their own garbage truck after trying to seek shelter from the rain there. (They were forbidden by law from seeking shelter anywhere else.)

The events surrounding the strike sounds at least as bad as the current problems in Ferguson, with plenty of violence from both sides during the protests, and tons of uncollected garbage piling up in the already-dirty streets of Memphis.

Like me, the world has gone so far, yet is still pretty much in the same place.